The political phenomena of the past two years, alas, has not been the triumphant agenda of President Obama, sweeping all before it as sugar plums of a renewed liberalism danced in the heads of his progressive followers, but the noisy emergence of the Tea Party, which is shaping the national debate to an extent that seems almost inconceivable to those who of us who watched, with incandescent anticipation, Obama and his family on election night in 2008 in Grant Park, in what seems to be an eternity or two ago.
I don’t know what I can do about this other than my usual response to crises in the Republic, which is to read books about them, which is what I have done. Let me comment briefly on two of them. One that has received a good deal of attention is Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. Lepore, an award winning historian at Harvard and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, has become one of the best-known historians in the country, and her short book, like everything she writes, is deftly argued, written, and researched, and she provides a history of the actual 1773 tea party, its subsequent historiography, and the connection between what actually happened and what people have thought happened to the rise of the new tea partiers.
The book has many virtues, but I found it a bit snarky, or to same thing in historiographicalese, a bit too Hofstaederian for my tastes, too intent on reducing the tea party to the latest version of the enduring paranoid style in American history, making fun of the tea partiers and the republic for which they stand. For Lepore they reduce the constitution to a version of fundamentalist originalism that relates to history the same relation to real science as astrology does to astronomy.
Now, I would be the last person to defend originalism as a theory of constitutional interpretation, but to attack it as anti-intellectual seems besides the point, and whatever one thinks of Antonin Scalia, as he would be the first to tell you, he ain’t stupid. Lepore blames the Tea Partiers for having a narrow one-dimensional view of the founding era, and blames academic historians for not writing enough multi-dimensional works of popular history to rouse the average American from their dogmatic slumbers, and then blames, somewhat bizarrely leftist historians in the 1970s, who tried to put a leftist tinge on the bicentennial, as the original presentist politicizers of the revolution. But this strikes me as being besides the point. But there is a difference between popular memory and history and the best history will never displace popular memory. What’s wrong with originalism, and what’s wrong with the tea party view of American history, is not that it’s illegitimate, but that’s its wrong. Originalism, states' rights, a heavy reliance on the 10th amendment, execration of the overuse of the commerce clause, all have a long history in this country dating back to 1790 or so. There are some crazy arguments, and some frothing conspiracy theorists (like Glenn Beck), but the core of what the tea party is calling for, smaller budgets, more localized governments, elimination of liberalism and all of its works, seems fully within the
field of acceptable discourse. I think those who disagree with the resurgent right need to try to listen to what they are saying, engage them, and not dismiss them a priori. I was going to comment on another tea party book, but this post is long enough, so stay tuned for my follow-up.